Arriving in Italy’s most romantic city by train, we’re a little concerned our trip is going to be more Venice Beach than La Venezia when we’re swamped by American backpackers. A foot onto the taxi boat that is going to speed us to Accademia, and it doesn’t take long for the realisation to sink in: this may be a city drowning in tourists, but it is so beautiful that you barely notice.
It’s with eager anticipation that we carry our overnight bags to our design-conscious luxury hotel for the weekend – but will somewhere contemporary really feel right in these pastel-hued, fairytale environs? When we find the hotel, hiding down a narrow alley in Dorsoduro, we know instantly we are somewhere really special. Making the most of every inch of space, it’s the hotel equivalent of the Smart car. From the outside, you might expect it to be cramped – but it’s a design triumph. We’re led up past the only communal area (two chairs on a landing, and a breakfast area) and into our room. DD724 may not be the only hotel in the world to feature clean lines and a brown-and-white colour palette, but it’s a stroke of contemporary cool unique to these parts.
What’s so unexpected about the Charming House, as DD724 is also known, is that there is also an incredible warmth to the rooms. Stylish yet cosy modern furnishings are softened with touches such as the loosely knitted wool blanket knotted at the end of the bed. You glance from a widescreen TV to an open window revealing a scene that EM Forster would be inspired by. Since we booked last-minute and missed out on one of the more palatial Junior Suites, we assume our bathroom will be snug, yet it still manages to impress, right down to its own range of olive-oil products. (In a reversal of roles this trip, Mr Smith is the one to squirrel away toiletries to take home, and the aftershave balm has him cooing like a 13-year-old girl at a Rimmel stand.)
Great fun as it is settling into such an abode, it’s hard to imagine anyone coming to this city to squander much of the day in their room. But early nights are de rigueur in Venice, and we know there’s plenty of exploring time awaiting us tomorrow. The wonderfully helpful young lady behind the tiny front desk recommends a canalside trattoria around the corner. In Venice, recommendation is crucial. Cantinone Storico turns out to be the perfect option. The risotto terra mare is out of this world, and the monkfish with fresh artichokes is absolutely delicious.
By midnight, much of Venice is sound asleep, so we decide on a treat while the going’s calm: a gondola trip. We head towards a waiting boat to enquire how much – 100! Eventually we barter him down to 80 for 40 minutes. Feeling as though we’ve got a bargain, we pile on board. It is uncomparably romantic, almost haunting, as we’re gently nudged along the dark, deserted canals; yet we spend the first ten minutes trying to calculate how much the gondolier must earn in a year. A friend of his calls down from a window, and they strike up voluble chat – clearly discussing whether to moor the yacht at St Barths or St Tropez this New Year’s Eve. Still, it’s the perfect starlit end to our night.
The next morning we’re out of our room by 09h30, and first to breakfast – most civilised. Everything is laid out in ordered presentation, with a grid of little jams and a neat line of croissants on offer. Even our eggs and bacon is served in a nouvelle-cuisine manner. But the biggest impression is made by the pistachio spread. Nutella’s dark-green-emulsion cousin is amazing. After such a satisfying start to the day, we leave not only contented, but, thanks again to the staff at DD724, with details of how to order crema di pistacchio.
Our first stop is next-door: the Guggenheim Museum. Formerly the home of Peggy Guggenheim, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni now houses masterpieces by Brancusi, Picasso, Kandinsky, Pollock and Ernst, among others. A magnificent collection in truly charming surroundings, there’s nowhere like it. A browse of the gift shop, then it’s time to brave the more traditional sights.
En route to Piazza San Marco, it’s hard to resist a fresh slice of pizza from a kiosk next to the hotel; it hits the spot and, a rare treat in Venice, it’s a bargain. We now have the strength to face the hordes, and head to the epicentre. The Basilica San Marco is indeed breathtaking from the outside, but as we’re not feeling up to a long wait queueing, we head to the Campanile instead. A lift takes you to the top of the tower, where a spectacular view awaits. It’s a great way to get a sense of Venice’s unique layout, and how far out at sea you are.
It’s when you escape the mêlée of pigeons, children and many visitors, young and old, that you realise DD724 is in the perfect location, sufficiently off the beaten track for you to amble its neighbourhood in peace. After an afternoon of window-shopping, strolling and stopping off for cappuccini, we make our way towards Campo Santa Margherita. Sitting alfresco at one of the many cafés and bars, surrounded by students, artists and Italian families, we order the traditional aperitif: a spritz. Be warned,the bittersweet symphony of this Seventies-looking cocktail of Campari, white wine and soda is not for all palates. Still, our fizzy red drink is perfect for a toast, and we raise a glass to the most delightful 24 hours imaginable.